Over the past week, The Times has sought to shed light on the plight of some 17 percent of Hall County residents, some 33,000 in all, who live below the poverty level. In an affluent county with low unemployment where most people are doing well, it’s easy to ignore the challenges of those who are not.
The people profiled in our series represent the working poor, those who have jobs but still can’t make enough to stay ahead. They face challenges in finding decent work that can help them pay for housing, transportation, health care and child care. All these basics are more expensive than they were a generation ago, yet wages for many who lack a college degree or specific skills remain low. The good-paying industrial jobs that used to lift many into the middle class have largely dried up or require more specific training or skills than many workers now have.
It’s difficult to understand this struggle until you’ve walked in someone’s shoes, which is our goal in shining light on their stories. As detailed in last week’s editorial, helping them and others in poverty should involve more than handouts of food and other items. A box of groceries may tide a family over for a bit but doesn’t get them out of poverty long term.
The United Way of Hall County is introducing ideas to instill more responsibility for those receiving help to make them partners and not just charity recipients, the goal being to make them more productive and less reliant on social programs. The old adage “teach a man to fish” describes the effort to foster such independence.
Ideally, this should be a common goal that unites folks of all backgrounds and ideologies. But many have been quick to condemn those who are struggling to make it in a changing, challenging economy. They often lump the working poor in with those who rely completely on government assistance and charity, or who are unable to get or keep a job. For the most part, these aren’t people panhandling or living solely on the public dole; they’re trying to do the right thing and care for themselves and their families in a tough environment.
Yes, many of the working poor have made bad choices, be it addiction, teenage pregnancy or failing to pursue an education or marketable skills. They often concede this and seek to overcome their past and move forward. Until someone can invent a time machine to give them a do-over, society must deal with the problem as is. Rather than brand them with the scarlet letter of disapproval, it benefits everyone to help them find the path to become self-sufficient, productive taxpayers and citizens.
No doubt, it’s unsettling to learn how many of our fellow residents aren’t doing as well as the rest of us, and it can even make some feel guilty about their own success. Yet knowing about the problem is preferable to turning away in denial.
There are those among us who have “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” and deserve a salute for doing so, but not everyone has the same foundation to build upon. Many of the poor come from broken homes and were shuttled from place to place as kids, often the product of abusive or alcoholic parents. They can’t just flip a switch and turn their lives around overnight. Yet as long
as they’re willing to try and make the changes needed, we shouldn’t turn our backs on them.
“Well, they shouldn’t have had all those children,” some say. Indeed, discretion would have been advised for youthful parents who had more children than they can support. Agencies aimed at preventing teen pregnancy should receive the support they need to steer kids away from risky sexual behavior and ensure children are born into stable families to nurturing parents who can care for them properly.
Nevertheless, these kids are here now. They’re hungry and they need an education, shoes, medical care and a chance to succeed beyond the limitations their parents’ choices have created. Ignoring them dooms them to the same life of poor decisions, resulting in even more crime, addiction, teenage pregnancy and government dependence. If we want to end this cycle, it starts by turning these families in a better direction.
These are not all people looking for a handout; in many cases they are people looking for a helping hand and a way out of the financial problems they face on a daily basis.
Instead of accusing people of abusing the food stamp program, let’s help them get a wage that makes them ineligible for such help. Instead of turning our backs on children whose parents made bad decisions, let’s help them grow into better adults themselves. Instead of complaining about a lack of skilled labor, let’s find more ways to get people willing to work the skills they need to earn a better living.
Tough love is required, but it shouldn’t come with anger or disdain. The working poor don’t need to be preached to when they seek to rise beyond their mistakes. Instead of a cold shoulder, they deserve a hand up toward a better life, for their sake and the community’s.
mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.